The Food and Drug Administration plans to employ enhanced technology using new data sources to trace food outbreaks to their source, the agency said in a Smarter Era for Food Safety Blueprint released Monday.
The blueprint “frames a vision for the next decade with short- and long-term activities that will evolve as we pursue the goals it outlines,” FDA said in Frequently Asked Questions released with the blueprint.
“As has been seen with outbreaks in fresh leafy greens and other foods over the past decade, anonymity and lack of traceability in the food system are an Achilles’ heel that hinders more significant progress in rapid traceback efforts to identify contaminated foods,” the blueprint says.
Technology already helps the agency respond to outbreaks. “Whole genome sequencing allows us to identify illness clusters when they are smaller” and public health agencies “increasingly rely on electronic data in outbreak investigations,” such as shopper card data, the bar code from a food package, supplier-customer data, purchase orders, and bills of lading for shipments of goods.
“Yet the quality and compatibility of this data is highly variable,” FDA said. “We want to tap into new technologies and integrate data streams to identify outbreaks and trace the origin of a contaminated food to its source in minutes, or even seconds, speeding our response when public health is at risk.”
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement that the agency wants to “explore ways to encourage companies to adopt tracing technologies and also to harmonize efforts to follow food from farm to table. We should strive to speak the same language, by espousing similar data standards across government and industry for tracking and tracing a food product.”
The blueprint said FDA is “looking to enhance and strengthen root cause analyses and predictive analytics. Findings of root cause analyses can be an important step in helping industry modify practices to avoid identified risks and can provide more robust data for predictive analytics.”
In doing so, FDA said it needs to work more closely with states to “leverage each other’s data and analytics to ensure optimal use of resources and maximize our food safety reach.”
The agency also wants to improve its “predictive analytics capabilities through expanded use of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools.” FDA plans to “evaluate the feasibility of using remote, virtual, and/or component inspections of foreign and domestic firms with a demonstrated history of compliance for agency prioritization purposes. FDA conducted remote inspections of certain importers during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Another element of the blueprint focuses on new business models, including food delivery, which has taken on added importance during the pandemic.
Pre-COVID-19, “research indicated that online grocery shopping would have a 20 percent share of consumer food spending within the next few years. However, online shopping took on a new importance for consumers sheltering in place, with one survey reporting that 31 percent of U.S. households are already using online grocery services.”
FDA wants to partner with food delivery companies on education about the importance of proper food handling, “including outreach to delivery services such as the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, FedEx, Uber, Lyft, [and] DoorDash,” among others.
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The food safety culture also has to change, FDA said.
“We still believe that to make dramatic reductions foodborne disease we must do more to influence and change human behavior, as well as to address how employees think about food safety, and how they demonstrate their commitment to this as part of their jobs,” Hahn said.
“But a strong culture of food safety involves more than this. It’s also about keeping those food workers safe and about educating consumers, who are cooking more at home these days, on safe food handling practices.”
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